Some dissatisfied with Newry's school share
Newry selectmen and two residents last week discussed whether anything could be done to lower the town’s share of the SAD 44 budget.
Newry, which has about 30 students, is slated to pay nearly $2.8 million toward the school budget, slightly more than Bethel pays.
The current Newry mil rate is 9.1.
Doug Webster asked selectmen if there was a way of “looking into getting more bang for our buck for our students, with that rating [the recent state grading of Maine schools] and what we’re paying to educate our kids, it seems to be way out of line.”
Webster wondered if Newry could negotiate with the state to “get out of the current system that us and one other town [Frye Island] have. “It’s grossly unfair,” said Webster. “I’m surprised nobody has come to the town wanting to get out of the district.”
(Webster was referring to a 2005 change in the school funding law that for most of Maine added a student population component to the calculation of a town’s share of a district budget. But the state Legislature exempted SAD 44 and SAD 6, allowing them to keep their budget shares based entirely on property valuations. Had that provision not been included, Newry’s share could have fallen drastically while that of the other four SAD 44 towns could have jumped by double digit percentages. Leading up to the Legislature’s decision, Supt. Dave Murphy pled SAD 44’s case to a Legislature committee and to then-Rep. Arlan Jodrey and Sen. Bruce Bryant.)
Town Administrator Loretta Powers said that when residents have complained to her in the past about the school costs, “My comment back was the school budget has never not passed in the town of Newry, which amazes me after all the people who complain about it,” she said. “It always passes by a pretty decent margin.”
Pursuing a change, she said, would be “up to the townspeople. It’s been thrown around a lot.”
Selectman Brooks Morton said it would take a citizens’ initiative.
Rob James was also dissatisfied with Newry’s share of the school budget.
“It seems if we pay a large enough portion it allows the other towns to just kind of coast,” he said. “If they paid what it really costs, they might be more interested in what goes on down at the school.”
He said Newry is subsidizing the budget.
James also said he was offended when Woodstock and Greenwood in the past discussed the possibility of doing Tax Increment Financing (TIF) with development projects.
One proposed Greenwood project would have allowed that any increased property value associated with the project not be counted against the town’s valuation for purposes of calculating its share of the district school budget, nor for calculating the amount of state revenue sharing the town received. The town could then have contributed part of the funds from those two benefits back to the developer responsible for the improvements, in order to offset the increased taxes the developer would be paying on the upgraded property.
James said the towns were trying to keep the TIF funds in town while Newry is “paying way more than anybody else in the state.”
Webster said he was not necessarily advocating that Newry simply look at withdrawing from SAD 44. But, he said, perhaps the argument could be made that the town might leave the district “unless we get a fair shake” financially.
Selectboard Chair Wendy Hanscom said changing the formula would take legislation.
Looking back at when the Legislature exempted SAD 44 from the law change, Hanscom said, “When it first got passed there wasn’t a lot of discussion about it. It just seemed to get handed to us. There was no input from Newry on the change, as far as we know. It would have been nice if we’d been offered a phase-in, even if it was over 20 years.”
The selectmen’s discussion concluded with no action recommended.
Contacted Monday, Murphy said the possible change in the funding formula by the Legislature, and the subsequent proposed exemption for SAD 44, were discussed at the School Board level over a span of several meetings from late 2004 to early 2005 before they became law.